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53 Historians on Obama

Edward Baptist

Cornell University, author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014)

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How much will Obama’s being black matter in the end? In, say, 20 years, will it be a major or minor aspect of his presidency and, to the extent that it will matter, in what specific way will it matter most?

This is the United States, where the public culture, both popular and political, is all about the contest between whiteness and blackness. Obviously, no small part of the fury deployed against Obama comes from white rage against blackness. But we have to remember, incredibly destructive fury was marshaled against Bill Clinton as well. Some commenters saw that white rage as coming from the ways in which Clinton was depicted as “black,” but I think it was really directed against Clinton’s supporters, who conservatives don’t see as “real” Americans. Conservative rage-napalm was synthesized a long time ago, and it gets dropped on Democrats no matter their ancestry. Of course Obama catches more hell because he’s black. But even more than that, he catches hell because his supporters are African-American, or the allies of African-Americans: He catches hell because he represents black power even more than because he incarnates black power.

Just as interesting, I think—at least in this moment—is the question of what historians will make of the ways in which Barack Obama is different from Michelle Obama. And by that I mean the ways in which “black” immigrants and their children have or have not adopted African-American cultural and political identities. Every time President Obama is perceived as “scolding” African-Americans, there’s the potential to widen the split between those who are descended from survivors of slavery here, and those who have come in through the doors forced open by those descendants. There are Afro-Caribbean and African immigrants who are happy to enjoy the opportunities of a less-segregated higher-education system and professional workforce—opportunities only available because of the countless sacrifices of African-American activists and martyrs—but less eager to identify themselves in fundamental solidarity with the Michael Browns and Eric Garners of the world. The future of black political power in the United States relies in no small part on closing that gap.

Will future historians blame Obama for not getting more done in a climate of Republican obstructionism, or will he be given a pass for it? More generally, to what degree will his presidency be seen as “transformative” (the word he used to describe the Reagan administration)?

Here historians will be kinder than the present generation of analysts. There is very little a president can do in the face of majority congressional opposition. Democratic voters and party insiders alike have no one to blame but themselves. They didn’t do their jobs—too many voters stayed home instead of voting, and too many insiders abandoned the project of grassroots party organization and renewal that helped to give them a House majority in 2006. As far as “transformation,” if the Affordable Care Act can survive and even expand to the states where Republican overlords have tried to block its real effects, that will be a transformational achievement. There’s also an opportunity to transform the federal judiciary in ways that will also have long-lasting effects. However, historians will judge the Obama administration harshly—and rightly so—for failing to reregulate the financial sector.

Will the Obama years come to be seen as a major realignment in Democratic politics? As a historian, how would you predict the longevity of his coalition?

I think that the Democratic coalition remains demographically the same as it was back in the Bush II years, there’s just less energy and focus right now because people got lazy after 2008. And by “people” I mean party activists. In fact, between 2008 and 2010 the party missed a chance to lock in the loyalties and commitments of a generation of newly energized citizens between their 20s and 40s. A lot of those who participated in politics in 2006 and 2008 in a much more active way than they ever had before have now fallen aside in disgust. Those folks could be precinct captains and county board members, but instead most of the people doing that are over 60 still. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the outcome is the weakness of the Democratic Party in local, state, and midterm elections. That in turn has allowed the Republicans to impose a historic gerrymandering of American politics, which is perhaps at the most extreme level that has ever been seen. In 2012, in my home state of North Carolina, Democratic House candidates got hundreds of thousands more votes in total than did Republican candidates, and yet the Democrats won only four of 13 seats. This is symptomatic of the entire system. Historically, gerrymandering can keep a lot of power in the hands of a once-hegemonic party—which is what the Republicans were from 1968 or 1972 until 1998 or 2006, depending on how you measure it—long after their policies or their message or both lose support with the majority of voting-age Americans. Eventually the gerrymandering can’t hold back the tide of real demographic and cultural shifts.

What single action could Obama realistically do before the end of his term that would make the biggest positive difference to his historical legacy?

Obama could launch a national movement to ensure that every citizen can vote in every election. This might mean creating national ID standards, creating real federal standards for elections, proposing a constitutional amendment—it might mean many things. But the recent campaigns for disfranchisement, which of course are launched by those who are furious that he got elected in the first place, are a disgrace to democracy and need to be reversed.

Will Obama’s reputation have improved or declined in 20 years?

Obama’s reputation will undoubtedly rise by the time 20 years have passed. Right now, much of his old coalition is angry at him. They will miss him when he’s gone, and in the meantime, if the ACA takes root, it will be recognized as an accomplishment on a par with Social Security.

Which of his speeches and phrases will be the most enduring?

The most enduring speech will be the victory speech in Grant Park in November 2008.

In which presidential mode was Obama the most effective: orator, legislator, commander-in-chief, consoler of the nation, or some other mode?

While President Barack Obama has been highly effective at the consoler and orator roles, I think he will be seen as having been most effective in the commander-in-chief mode. In resisting the bombast of the Bush years, he has created a foreign policy that can actually deliver on its much more limited aims. That includes killing terrorist leaders, whether with special forces or drone attacks, forming coalitions that can wipe out minor threats like ISIL, and containing the international outbreak of deadly diseases. Obviously there have been a more mixed record in two major areas: stabilizing Afghanistan and rebuilding the international financial system.

Will the image of Obama overshadow his accomplishments, in the manner of JFK?

I predict that historians will repeatedly write books arguing that the image of Obama shouldn’t be overshadowed by the long-term effect of accomplishments like the ACA or decisions like the shift to a foreign policy carried out in no small part by drone technology. This will be quite a cottage industry, and the fact that writers will make that move over and over again will also reveal the enduring power of the image.

Who will be seen as the most consequential member of his Cabinet or senior staff?

The most consequential member of his senior staff will be one of two women. It might be Valerie Jarrett, the trusted adviser, an African-American woman who many believe persuades Obama to move in more middle-of-the-road, triangulating directions that avoid confrontation with Wall Street. Or it might be Michelle Obama, the woman who the broader public has come to see as more “authentically black” than any other leader in U.S. history (whether they love her blackness or, like many white Republicans, hate it so much that they blurt out the thoughts we already know that they think). It’s hard to know how much either of these two women shape the president’s decisions, but many believe that Jarrett and Michelle Obama wield great influence with Barack Obama.

Which will prove to be more significant: the reduction of troops on the ground, or the increase in the use of military drones?

The reduction of troops on the ground and the increase in the use of drones are two sides of the same coin.

What will be the most lasting symbolic image of the Obama presidency?

The most lasting symbolic image could be the First Family—the first black First Family—sitting behind the president as he takes the oath of office in either 2009 or 2013. Or it could be the president of the United States being lectured by an extraordinarily rude, privileged white woman (Governor Jan Brewer) on the tarmac of an Arizona airfield. Or it could be the commander-in-chief sitting in the Situation Room, clearly in control of the table, as the national-security team follows the unfolding takedown of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan. Symbolic triumph, prisoner of white racism, cool and unflappable behind-the-scenes leader. Which scene from the experience of President Barack Obama is the true essence of the 2009–17 era?


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